Treasures of lounggunna John

Everyone can be explained—just ask Robert Caro—and some men are revealed in their lifetimes. But at the end of Gregg Gibbs' excellent 2006 documentary on Long Beach collector and record company owner Long Gone John, who is moving himself and his things to Olympia, Washington, this month, there's a very nagging sense that something is missing, overlooked or that John himself has again eluded us—perhaps only because he has before. This is still a very good film, but the closest we get to the truth may be an hour into it, when the impresario seems to confess.
"You become this hoarding fucking monster," says John, who's now approaching his half-century and is considering life's larger issues. "I just keep accumulating, you know and um, you know, it's potentially a big problem. Because I feel I'm amassing this great collection of stuff and, then you know, you just, you know, die and—or at some point, it's like, 'What does this mean, what am I doing, [why] am I devoting so much time/ energy/passion into filling my house with things?'"
It's a question John has been pondering for years, one you can hear him answer Saturday when Gibbs' documentary, The Treasures of Long Gone John screens twice at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana as a complement to its exhibit of pieces from John's extensive lowbrow art collection—and artifacts from his house. The answer may elude even John. Maybe it's trapped in his synapses; maybe it doesn't even exist. But the search looks so good.
A fanatical record collector, Long Gone John started his own label in his house in Long Beach, in 1988: Sympathy for the Record Industry. It's famous for yielding the White Stripes' first three records; for some of the earliest Courtney Love; and perhaps for its exhaustive Gun Club reissues. But even more so, he's infamous for jamming his house with every Margaret Keane painting a swap meet could hold; every giant plastic Cootie, every big ceramic phrenology head, and as many limited edition vinyl Sailor Moon dolls as possible. (See related story, "Long Gone and Out," in Arts.) And after the "Western Exterminators"   show circa 1985 at the Zero One Gallery in Los Angeles, John and other likeminded men started buying as many canvases by Robert Williams, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Coop and Camille Rose Garcia as possible. (All appear in the film.) But especially John. The time was right; he was ready to unleash his persona, having spent years perfecting it.
"As a child I was stolen by gypsies from a basket on the back porch of our house as my mother hung the wash to dry. We were a very poor family . . . ," John writes in a postscript to Anima Mundi , a 2001 book of Mark Ryden's work. The gypsies returned him with a note "that read 'lounggunna' which later was discovered translated from Romanian into 'long gone' . . . this was apparently a reference to my temperament . . . " and maybe also to John once having read O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."
The "facts" seem to cast him as the black sheep son of a large Catholic family from Whittier—an unrepentant who became a burglar and a ward of the state; who worked as a Teamster, and started Sympathy on a settlement reached after the Teamsters fired him for fighting. In between: as many early LA punk shows as possible; hundreds of early-morning swap meets; a marriage that yielded two lovely daughters, and a canny real estate score on the outskirts of Long Beach's Virginia Country Club. Mixed in with this, Gibbs also delivers a noteworthy tangent on the emergence of lowbrow art from the wreckage of Ed Roth Studios, Lions Drag Strip and the Cars of the Stars Planes of Fame Museum in Buena Park.

It is, cribbing Tom WolfE, a candy- coated, tangerine-flake coupla hours worth of film (Gibbs' editing job must have been monumental). But is it true? Gibbs largely succeeds in convincing us—but if you know John, you wonder. I've met him, and he's a really nice guy. His house in Long Beach is—was—gorgeous. But those are always the guys who get you: the nice ones with a 20-pound test line and tattoos. It's almost better—certainly, easier—to watch Treasures for what it also is: possibly the best documentary made thus far on the lowbrow (or call it pop surrealism) art scene that emerged from Los Angeles 15 years ago. This is also appropriate: a difficult birth that dragged out with it a placenta full of Paint by Number paintings, 1970s horror comics, and found art doggerel, the lowbrow thing is as debatable as "lounggunna" John. So open your yaps, boyos.


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